By Jerry Mooney
First seen on automoblog.com
In the discussions that surround autonomous vehicles safety is often the first concern. Invariably, the concern is that self-driving cars would create risks and hazards minimized by superior human pilots. Rarely do car crashes, even fatal ones, make headlines anymore. But when a crash happened under Autopilot, then there is a story. This leads me to the recent event Missouri.
Joshua Neally of Springfield, Missouri was essentially rescued by his new Tesla Model X. Neally was on his way to work when he began experiencing excruciating pain in his chest and abdomen area from what he learned was a pulmonary embolism. His acute condition rendered him incapable of driving. He had enough wherewithal to put his car in autopilot and set the destination as the nearest hospital. In order to keep the autopilot feature engaged, he had to tap the steering wheel periodically. Because of current limitations on the technology and regulations he was required to drive the last mile, but he got there. Prompting the conclusion that the autopilot function on his new car saved his life.
Image courtesy of ABCNews.go.com
Currently, Tesla’s Autopilot feature is designed as an aid to drivers but requires driver’s engagement and interaction. Eventually, the expectation is that cars will drive themselves but the technology is still in ‘open beta’. This means that it is in development, but it is available to the public as it evolves. It works using a combination of radar, cameras and ultrasonic sensors with digitally controlled brakes and high-precision GPS. The radar and camera point forward and guide the car within the lines of the road, initiating braking and evasive steering when needed.
Tesla is very insistent through disclaimers and consistent media relations that the Autopilot feature is currently designed to assist drivers and not to be used as fully autonomous. They refer to the technology as ADAS or advanced driver assistance system and also emphasize that drivers must interact. The couple of examples of fatal crashes have happened when drivers have been completely disengaged from the driving process. Tesla also points to the fact that even with the two fatalities such crashes have occurred at half the rate of human piloted cars when compared mile for mile.
All Tesla models currently sold have Autopilot as an available feature. The software is included in all cars and is updated over the air like all Teslas. The equipment is sold as an extra which runs just over $4000. With the equipment drivers are advised currently to only use it when on the freeway. There the system will maintain speeds with the flow of traffic, change lanes when the blinker is engaged, monitor surrounding traffic and obstacles and adjust accordingly, but you must periodically tap the steering wheel to prove you are alert.
The Autopilot feature is not a full-blown chauffeur, but it is capable being summoned and self-parking. This feature allows the owner to use a smartphone app to summon the vehicle. The car can then open and close the garage door using wifi communications and drive itself to the owner. It can also drop you off and go park itself, again opening and closing the garage. The Summon feature currently has limited range, but is expected to be expanded to the point that a car could be summoned from across the country.
Obviously the fatal crashes get the headlines and will continue to do so until this technology becomes widely adopted and passe. And it isn’t without risk to allow robots, no matter how smart, to take control of your life. But even at this early stage, statistic show that Tesla’s Autopilot is safer than human drivers. They don’t fatigue like we mortals do and they aren’t distracted by sights, smartphones, spilled coffee or any other driving eventualities. But until the technology becomes normal it will still scare many of us away from fully trusting it.
As amazing as this technology is, it is just the beginning. Again, it’s beta. What’s really exciting is the potential that is just over the horizon. Elon Musk envisions a point soon where your car drops you off at work or home and then speeds off to work as an Uber. The car would be able to be summoned to fares and take them to their destination and take the payments with its built-in computer system. It could also find a charging station and wirelessly charge before venturing off to make more money. This is not only an exciting way to make passive income, but on a larger scale, this helps reduce parking issues all while driving emissions free. Because of the over-the-air communications, the cars would be able to communicate with each other and share a ‘hive mind’. This would allow the fleets to avoid bad routes, traffic jams, and constantly learn collectively from each car’s experience.
Because this technology is new it is frightening to many. The key is to keep in mind it is at an early stage and like all technologies, they get better with each iteration and advancement. Some fear the rise of the robot car, but I see a brave new world of clean transportation, most customizable and nimble than anything we’ve ever seen.
Jerry Mooney is co-founder and managing editor of Zenruption and the author of History Yoghurt and the Moon. He studied at the University of Munich and Lewis and Clark College where he received his BA in International Affairs and West European Studies. He has recently taught Language and Communications at a small, private college and owned various businesses, including an investment company. Jerry is committed to zenrupting the forces that block social, political and economic justice. He can also be found on Twitter @JerryMooney